Music Biz Self-Destructiveness Not New

Jeff Balke has a great post on the long history of how the music business created its own problems – well before file sharing arrived on the scene.   They grew fat and happy from easy compact disc money as fans replaced vinyl, attracting financial speculators with no music knowledge, which created a hard stop:

What they failed to realize is that the CD gravy train would soon come to an end as people finally replenished their collections and went back to their normal buying routines. The years of off the chart sales came to an abrupt end and corporations were stuck with bloated record divisions and they had no clue what to do – the end result when you replace creative minds seeking talent with bean counters seeking profit.

The bean counters have run things ever since, gutting artist development and streamlining promotion (which fed the creation of homogenized, centralized radio).

One really good point he makes is that while record companies have leaned on catalog sales (Springsteen, Petty, U2 et.al.), they’ve forgotten how they became classic acts in the first place.  Take Tom Petty as a good example.  His first record stiffed, the second was mired in a label transition from Shelter to MCA, and his third was barely released (‘Damn the Torpedoes’ original Petty-bestowed title was “$8.98” in protest of a one dollar list price increase.  If anybody can find me a “1978 Lawsuit Tour” T-Shirt, I’ll pay big bucks).

The third time was the charm, as TPHB went from playing clubs like the Paradise and Old Waldorf to places like the Music Hall, er, Wang Center, and later to hockey rinks.

Without a firm label commitment, none of this would have happened.  Yet, the business is overrun with flash in the pan one hit wonders who wouldn’t know a deep catalog if they drowned in it.

Balke also talks about the single most destructive piece of legislation ever foisted on music fans, the Telecommunications Act of 1996.  This piece of crap has more to do with today’s state of affairs than Napster, Grokster and Morpheus combined.  Why?  Because it created Clear Channel, and paved the way for radio becoming a playground for Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern and an army of talk show ass-hats. Centralized promotion and narrowed playlists resulted on the remaining stations, and interest in music was ceded to video games, cheap VCR movies and DVDs (isn’t that ironic?)  and a million other niche pursuits.

Like the Internet.

Bottom line, music was devalued and Napster stepped up and finshed the job, which started a long time ago.

Local Rhythms – Calendar Conundrum

A reader, upset that I’d failed to mention a bluegrass festival near his hometown, recently took me to task for what he perceived as a southern bias in my reporting.

Well, to call Chris Jones “a reader” is bit misleading.  Until last May, when he closed the Middle Earth Music Hall in Bradford, he was a force of nature in the regional music scene.  What he said deserves to be quoted in detail.

He called my coverage north of the 89/91 junction “spotty at best,” and he felt his club deserved more attention than this column had given over the years.

“I do hope that what we did here will inspire some others to carry on,” he concluded. “I would also hope that when you see or hear of a venue starting up that relies on admission revenues rather than alcohol sales, give them all the help you can. They can’t make it without you.”

Well, if I stopped writing tomorrow, the musicians I cover probably wouldn’t miss a beat.  I’m touched, however, that Chris considers my small contribution, mostly born from an inability to master the guitar, important in any way.

But his words raised another problem.  Plenty of people read this column to find out about events, but how do I discover them?  Sadly, the “Wallow in Clay Hollow” Mr. Jones wrote me about had flown right under my radar.

What else have I missed?

So I’ve come up with a solution.  I’ve asked people to email me in the past, but that hasn’t always worked out.  So I figure a little anarchy might shake things up a bit.

A while ago, I created a “Local Rhythms” Google calendar for area musical happenings. I’ve been, shall we say, spotty in keeping it up to date.  I intend to change that – hopefully, with your help.

I’ve modified it so that anyone – and I do mean anyone – can post an event.  The login account is localrhythms@gmail.com and the password is “localrhythms1”.

If there’s a musical event as   far south as Brattleboro, or as far north as Montpelier, plug it in.

This could lead to complete chaos, but it’s worth a try.

I’m not guaranteeing you’ll see every event in the paper, but many things could find their way into our recently revamped web site.

Chris Jones flatters me – I am so not indispensable.  But you, dear reader, are.  I can’t make it without you.

Here are this week’s humble suggestions:

Thursday: Bruce Marshall Group, Newbury Gazebo – Marshall is a versatile guitarist with an amazingly fast touch on the fretboard.  His band gives off a Skynyrd/Outlaws vibe when second guitarist Dave Cournoyer joins in, producing some serious rock and roll energy.  Marshall also plays a steel necked dobro with authority.  It’s the whole package – blues, rock and country

Friday: Starline Rhythm Boys, Barre Old Home Days – There’s neo-traditional, then there’s these guys, who still release 45 RPM records.  Wearing pegged pants and sporting pomade slicked-back hair, they play the kind or rockabilly that never gets old.  Today, as part of the weekend long Old Home celebration, they’re starting a bit early – 5 PM, to be exact.  If you like honest picking with an upright bass, this is your band.

Saturday: Out of Order, Broad Street Park – Three years ago, two Claremont teenagers were killed when the motorcycle they were riding was hit by a car. Robin Flaig and Justin Aiken had great hopes for the future; today’s memorial ride will raise money to help other young people with similar goals.  Out of Order provides the musical entertainment; they also appear frequently at the Imperial Buffet, playing new and classic rock

Sunday: Championship of New England Barbecue, Harpoon Brewery – This 2-day event is mostly about eating, but there’s a full slate of music both days, including the Nobby Reed Project, Bow Thayer and Antennas Up (also at Salt Hill on Friday), who play power pop with a funky backbeat – think Weezer meets Earth, Wind and Fire.  Did I mention food and beer?  It’s a vegan’s nightmare, with ribs, chicken and pork in abundance.

Tuesday: Irish Sessions, Salt Hill Pub – The Upper Valley’s musical melting pot, with blues on Thursdays and rock of every stripe on Fridays and Saturdays.  But it’s Tuesday’s early start (6:30 PM) musical circle of Celtic inspiration that’s closest to my heart – always surprising, always a pleasure, particularly with a nice pint of Guinness.

Wednesday: Cowboy Junkies, Higher Ground – The soundtrack for Prozac Nation, these guys will relax you to the point of catatonia.  It’s as if Patsy Cline disappeared like Amelia Earhart and turned up years later as Nico’s replacement in the Velvet Underground.  At turns moody, ethereal and transcendent, this family band (two brothers and a sister) has kept its unique blend of pop and pathos interesting for over 20 years.

Green River Wrap-Up

After Lucinda Williams closed out Saturday’s all-day show, Green River Festival organizer Jim Olsen was openly relieved.  “We’ve been ringed with storms all day,” he told the crowd.

But the weather, like the music, went off without a hitch, as fans were treated to one of the most varied bills in the festival’s 22-year history.

Highlights included a spirited set from Forro in the Dark, capped with the chorus, “if you don’t like Bob Marley, you’d better stay away from me.”  The Brazilian band played two sets, one on the main stage and another in the dance floor tent, attracting a large contingent of shaking bodies.

Gokh-Bi System, dressed in the traditional garb of their native Senegal, mixed Afro-pop with funk and soul.  It was quite a different sound for an audience in years past more accustomed to folk and bluegrass, but they seemed to enjoy it.

Eilen Jewell and her band did double duty, performing as the gospel Sacred Shakers early in the day, and ending the night in the dance tent with a set that ended about 40 minutes after Williams.

Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys proved the biggest hit in the dance tent, with a barrio rockabilly sound that recalled Los Lobos and Eddie Cochrane.  Big Sandy was also the busiest performer of the day, fronting a stripped-down “Little Sandy” group and doing guest vocals with gonzo guitarists Los Straitjackets on the main stage, in addition to an hour-long set with his own band.

Los Straitjackets combined Dick Dale-flavored surf music  with tongue-in-cheek theatrics, wearing Mexican wrestling masks (recently popularized in the Jack Black movie, “Nacho Libre”) and using badly mangled Spanish to introduce their instrumental songs.

With Big Sandy, they played a rollicking, multilingual version of the Ernie K-Doe classic, “Mother In Law.”

Lucinda Williams’ set ranged across her last two albums, along with several unreleased songs (she has a new record due in the fall).  She ended with a surprising cover of AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top,” which she called a “quintessential rock and roll song.”

Williams had the unenviable task of following Mavis Staples, who stole the show with a set that mixed powerful music with a social message underscored by current events and her own experiences living the changes that led to them.

She opened with a soulful cover of Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth,” followed by the movement anthem, “Eyes on the Prize.”

She added her own lyrics to J.B. Lenoir’s “Down in Mississippi,” reminding the crowd of her experience marching with Dr. Martin Luther King during the civil rights struggles.  Recalling her grandmother directing her to drink from a water fountain marked with a “colored only” sign, she sang, “Dr. King tore every one of those signs down, down in Mississippi.”

She touched on her appearance in the documentary “The Last Waltz,” performing “The Weight,” and name-checking the Band’s “Robertson, Danko, Garth, Manuel and Levon.”

But her set focused on soul and gospel, a church service of sorts in the middle of a sunny day.  She choked with emotion while performing Pops Staples’ “Why Am I Treated So Bad” – a song he wrote after attending one of MLK’s sermons.

“If it weren’t for Dr. King, I wouldn’t be able to say, a black man is running for President of the United States,” said Staples through tears.  The crowd was obviously with her – when Jim Olsen introduced her, he’d pretty much called the election for Obama – but it was nonetheless a stirring moment when she sang the song’s final line:

“I think I hear someone calling my name/saying further up the road things are gonna change.”

The thread of history stretched from the stage across the field, and not a soul there wondered how they’d managed to avoid the rain drenching everyone to the north, south, east and west of them.

It was that kind of day.

Eat to the Pariah Beat

Pariah Beat is the Upper Valley’s own Broken Social Scene, a musical collective fed by a constellation of friends and stylistic influences.  The band’s been around for a few years; the current five-member core evolved through a series of open mike nights last year at Skunk Hollow and Middle Earth Music Hall.

It’s a musical potluck.  “Each member brings their own side and their music,” says fiddler, guitarist and songwriter Billy Sharff. “We all write and sing songs – no one person is running the show.”

They made their first album in their current configuration with vocal help from Megan Jean and the Klay Family Band and steel guitar from area punk mainstay Jonee Earthquake, among others.

“Pariah Beat Radio” is a lively stew of Americana, punk, sacred harp, western swing, beat poetry, crusty blues and eastern European klezmer music.

Really – it’s all in there.  If Borat had inherited Morphine from Mark Sandman, it might sound like Pariah Beat.  Or cross the Clash with the Klezmatics, or imagine Dan Hicks hooked up with the politically inconvenient love child of Pharoah Sanders and Bobbi Gentry or…

Oh, forget it.  Trying to pinpoint the place all of this comes from is like nailing grits to a wall.  Good luck.

The band commemorates their artful prestidigitation this weekend with “Pariah Feat,” a three-day whirlwind CD release event, touching down in seven locations across three states.

They’ll begin Friday night with a show at Plough and Stars, a club near their current home base of Boston.  From there, it’s back to Hanover, where they’ll be busking for tips in front of Stinson’s Village Store from noon till four.

After that, they head to West Lebanon to set up in Music Matters, the independent music store where, says singer/bass player Emily Eastridge, most of the band bought their music in high school.  The Grand Mandibles, a group that includes Emily’s brother Chico, will join them.

The Music Matters show also feature a one-time reunion of the Yarbles, a band that Pariah Beat guitarist Nick Charyk played with as a teenager.

“It was part of a rowdy little scene we started,” says Emily Eastridge. “Parties, basement shows, Elks clubs and all ages shows at Thetford Academy, Black Box Theater, Shark Tank – any venue we could get our hands on.”

At 8 PM, they’ll tune up and play White River Junction’s Main Street Museum, one of the band’s frequent haunts, along with the Jonee Earthquake Band (another of Charyk’s former affiliations) and unabashed Pariah Beat fan Mark Vogal.

All this moving around presented a logistical challenge.  “There’s a lot of scrambling,” says Eastridge. “We’re using three different PA systems.”

On Sunday, they’ll host a “Pariah Brunch,” featuring pancakes cooked by drummer and chef James McHugh, at the Thetford Community Center.  Recent Thetford Academy graduate Will Whitcomb will be serenading diners, with band members waiting tables.

“It’s very cool because the whole thing is very community oriented,” says Eastridge.  There’s a raffle, including prizes donated by White River fashion boutique Revolutions and lighting designer Lampscapes.

They’re counting on seeing many familiar faces, as both Eastridge and accordion player Justin Bendel are Thetford natives.

With barely a moment to catch their breath, the band will de-camp and head to the Upper Valley Events Center in Norwich, where they will share the bill with A Farewell in Stereo and the Denton Affair.

Later, they’ll play and party at the India Queen in Hanover, the indoor equivalent of Stinson’s Alley – with hookahs.

After this massive PR blitz, they’ll return to touring.  Over the past year, they’ve played blues clubs in New Orleans, Bulgarian bars in New York, and funky little folk clubs in Asheville, North Carolina.

“We’re pretty warmly received wherever we go,” Emily says.  “We realize that music is a big connecting factor.”

Last spring, they customized an Enterprise rental van with shelves for sleeping and headed out for a three-week tour.

“All night driving, crappy gas station food … we love it, we want to do more,” says Eastridge.  “It was great – disgusting and great.”

Fans who want to check out “Pariah Beat Radio” can do so at the band’s MySpace page, or buy the album online at pariahbeat.com.  Most of the “Pariah Feat” weekend shows are free, with the exception of the Main Street Museum appearance ($5 for non-members) and the all-you-can eat buffet, which costs $10.00.

Blues News

August 2 is a busy weekend, but blues fans should check out the “Barnful of Blues Festival” at the New Boston Fairgrounds, located near Route 13 a few miles south of Weare, New Hampshire.

It’s an all-day affair featuring two stages – acoustic and electric – and a dozen area blues bands, including Sunapee favorites Roxanne and the Voodoo Rockers, all for a mere 10 bucks.

Headliner TJ Wheeler mixes musical knowledge into his performances, taking audiences on a journey from Delta blues to New Orleans jazz.  Boston’s Love Dogs bring a Dixie vibe to a rocking blues sound that recalls the Fabulous Thunderbirds, with horns.

Singer/guitarist Bruce Marshall played with Toy Caldwell of the Marshall Tucker Band, and has a lightning touch on the fretboard.  He’s also playing the Newbury Bandstand this Thursday (July 24) if you need a fix right away.

The event is sponsored by the New Boston Blues Association, and benefits Webster House, which helps kids ages 8 through 18 who need to live away from home.  All of the NBBA’s efforts are focused on raising money for Webster House, whose work is focused on “providing stability to a child’s life and rebuilding family relationships leading towards family re-unification, foster placement or independent living.”

MUSIC LINE-UP AND SCHEDULE

Barnful of Blues Festival – August 2, 2008

SIDE STAGE (ACOUSTIC)

National Anthem          12:00 PM     12:05PM
Chris Bonoli                 12:45 PM     1:00 PM
Arthur James                1:45 AM     2:00 PM
Jackie Lee                     2:45 PM     3:00 PM
Francine Calo               3:45 PM     2:00 PM
Arthur James                4:45 PM     3:00 PM
RAFFLES                       5:45 PM     6:00 PM
RAFFLES                       6:45 PM     7:00 PM

MAIN STAGE (ELECTRIC)

Michael Vincent &
Double Shot                  12:05 PM     12:45 PM
The Hayes Brothers       1:00 PM     1:45 PM
Sweet Willie D &
the Continental Walk    2:00 PM     2:45 PM

Bruce Marshall             3:00 PM     3:45 PM

Lisa Marie &

All Shook Up               4:00 PM     4:45 PM
The Love Dogs            5:00 PM     5:45 PM
Roxanne &
the Voodoo Rockers    6:00 PM     6:45 PM
TJ Wheeler                   7:00 PM     8:00 PM

Local Rhythms – Marinating in Music

I love writing about the local music scene, but it can be bittersweet at times.  Since I was working away from home for much of 2007, e-mailing my column from places like Seoul, London and Youngstown, Ohio, I missed a lot of the performances I picked every week.

What a difference a year makes.

This weekend, I had three days to marinade in music.

Sophie & Zeke’s in Claremont was packed Friday night for Pete Merrigan’s monthly appearance, and he tried something delightfully different. He’s released three albums of original music over the years, and written several songs besides (b-sides?).

There’s also a bunch of material from his Mad Beach Band days.

He always plays a few of his own tunes, but mostly sticks to crowd-pleasing covers like “Margaritaville” and “In the Summertime.”  Friday, Pete stuck 100 percent to his own catalog, including some selections that even his die-hard fans hadn’t heard before.

What a treat – I hope he does it again soon.

Saturday, James Montgomery made a hot day even hotter, performing on Elixir Restaurant’s back porch.  A blues scholar and a first-rate showman, his crackling band did not slow down or miss a step, playing two-plus hours and keeping the crowd dancing for most of it.

Gratefully, the elements cooperated.  I will never get used to summer thunderstorms.

The Imperial Lounge opened its new outdoor patio on Sunday with a fun set of covers from Smoke & Mirrors.  The restaurant served teriyaki chicken, burgers and hot dogs along with frosty mugs of my favorite New Hampshire beer, Tuckerman Ale.

There’s a big wooden stage for the band, plenty of room for dancing, and lots of picnic tables with umbrellas.  A party vibe prevailed – even the staff got up to dance a few songs.

Owner Steve Zhang plans to use it all summer long, weather permitting.  He says Thursdays will be “duo nights,” with Second Wind set for July 24 (Patty Marro and Brian Devenger of Smoke & Mirrors may play this week).

An outdoor annex also provides a place for patrons to get a nicotine fix – while it’s still legal.

Indoors, there’s a riser for the regular weekend bands, a very nice addition.  The Claremont club is doing a lot to boost the local music scene, and they deserve our support.

It was a splendid weekend, from start to finish.

What’s up in the coming days?

Thursday: Boréal Tordu, Woodstock Village Green (Noon) – Here’s living proof of why “Live Free or Die” New Hampshire has a French/English welcome sign at its border.  Two friends, Steve Muise and Robert Sylvain, started Boréal Tordu to carry on the rich musical traditions passed down from the Quebecois migrants, Acadians and French-speaking people of the Republic of Madawask

Friday: Cracker Barrel Fiddlers Contest, Newbury (VT) Bandstand – “The Devil went up to Newbury, he was looking for a soul to steal…” Billed as “the oldest annual Fiddlers Contest in the state of Vermont,” this event brings together enthusiasts of all ages and persuasions together to show their stuff.  Bring a lawn chair (if it rains, things will move indoors), and be prepared for some fine music;  the North Country takes fiddling seriously.

Saturday: Battle of the Bands, Whaleback Mountain – This all-day competition ends with headliner Soul Octane Burner.  TranScenT, Fall Line, RAK and Kelleyville Killer vie for a grand prize of studio time and other goodies.  At press time, two slots remained open. The whole shebang is for a good cause – Toys for Tots, and anyone arriving with a new unwrapped toy will receive 5 dollars off the admission price of $15.00.

Sunday: Chris Kleeman, Ludlow Gazebo – Billed as “Vermont’s Best Kept Blues Secret,” Kleeman has performed with B.B. King, Susan Tedeschi and others.  Former Middle Earth Music Hall proprietor Chris Jones, who knows a thing or two about good music, spoke of his talents as “an edge-of-your-seat joyride through the blues in all its varied shades.”  This show is part of the Okemo Valley Summer Series, running through August 24.

Tuesday: Norm Wolfe, Tip Top Café – A well-rounded, Vermont-born guitarist, Wolfe has played throughout the region for the past four decades, recently as a featured performer in Emily Lanier’s band, as well as Mo’Jazz.   The multi-instrumentalist once held a trumpet chair for with the Vermont Jazz Ensemble.  He’s a music director for the Hartford and Dresden School Districts, and gigged as a rock guitarist before moving over to jazz.

Wednesday: Dana and Susan Robinson, South Strafford Unitarian Church – Dana Robinson is a solid Americana singer/songwriter with a knack for recruiting awesome talent (Rani Arbo and Lui Collins played on his 1997 release, “Midnight Salvage).  For the past few years, he’s performed with his talented his wife, who adds a perfectly understated harmony to his songs, while soloing admirably on her own.

Donna Summer @ Meadowbrook

Donna Summer
Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavillion
Gilford, New Hampshire
July 8, 2008

Disco diva Donna Summer hasn’t heard the news, apparently. The album is dead, the song is king – or in her case, queen.

Performing the eighth show of her U.S. tour, Summer devoted more than half the night to selections from her first CD of new material in 17 years.  She’d warned in a recent interview that she planned to use her big hits, like “Hot Stuff” and “Last Dance,” as chips sprinkled in a freshly baked cookie of new music.

It’s a safe wager that the mostly-female crowd would have gladly skipped the carbs and gone for the whole chocolate bar.  If that was the case, they weren’t letting on, and to Summer’s credit, she knew when to deliver the sweet stuff.

Dressed in a sparking blue ballroom gown and arm-length matching gloves, she began the show with “The Queen Is Back” from the new album, and quickly segued into “I Feel Love,” followed by an energetic “Dim All the Lights.”

“I’m A Fire,” another selection from “Crayons,” featured a thumping bass line that recalled Summer’s disco days, and was the first new selection to get the crowd standing.

The tepid “Sand At My Feet” soon had them sitting again.

She brought a five-piece band, with two backup singers and three dancers (who wore themselves out with costumer changes).  She used several electronic panels spread across the stage to good effect, providing moment-to-moment visual cues with every song. “On the Radio” evoked nostalgia for a bygone age with graphics of radio dials, morphing into pulsing disco lights.

Just before intermission, Summer played two of the best tracks from “Crayons” – the bouncy samba “Brazil” and the title song – the latter, a ska-infused romp.   The first set closed with “Mr. Music,” which included a wistful montage of Summer’s record covers over the years.

“Enough is Enough (No More Tears),” her empowering 1979 duet with Barbra Streisand, kicked off the concert’s second half, and like a lot of the evening’s selections, the beat was noticeably (and unnecessarily)  faster than the original.  She followed that with another hit – one of the oddest disco cover songs of all time – “MacArthur Park,” which showed off Summer’s operatic singing range to great effect, and was one of the evening’s highlights.

The middle of set two slumped a bit.  Summer seemed to have difficulty with her self-described “diva moment.”  Her attempts to explain a ‘was this all worth it?’ epiphany were drowned out with “you go, girl” cheers, shouts and song requests. She did another new tune, “Be Myself Again,” touted as new album’s centerpiece, but it’s more than a long shot that anyone will ever hear it again after this concert (unless they buy “Crayons” – another dodgy bet).

Likewise, “Slide Over Backwards,” featuring the fictional Hattie Mae, proprietor of a mock New Orleans bar, fell flat when Summer left the stage for a costume change and let one of her backup singers solo for a song.

She recovered from this small disaster with a one-two-three punch of “She Works Hard For the Money,” “Bad Girls” and “Hot Stuff” – the last given a modern sheen with Randy Mitchell’s screaming lead guitar work.

She encored with a not-so-subtle bow to David Bowie (‘Fame (The Game)”), augmented with a photo montage of Billie Holliday, Jimi Hendrix, Marilyn Monroe and John Lennon, along with head shots from Hollywood’s golden age.

“Last Dance” was, appropriately enough, Summer’s final bow of the night, and provided the first glimpse of that ubiquitous Seventies icon, the disco ball. Tellingly, the mirrored ball fragmented into several pieces behind Summer as she wrapped things up, gave a half-hearted wave and shuffled off the stage.

She’d played most of her familiar songs (“Love to Love You Baby,” “Sunset People” and “The Wanderer” were among the missing), but in the end it still felt frustrating.  The sad fact is today’s fans attend one or two shows a year; they expect the hits, not a musical sales pitch.

For its part, the Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavilion is the concert venue equivalent of a scrappy Indie rock band, working harder and delivering better than the competition.  They sell their own tickets with reasonable service charges, don’t charge for parking, have a friendly, engaging staff, and a wide array of affordable food and beverage choices.

The acoustics are excellent for an outdoor facility and they even make a top-shelf margarita that puts a few Mexican restaurants to shame.